Fort Severn children without a safe and healthy education environment

The Washaho School in Fort Severn First Nation is contaminated with severe mould growth due in part to INAC’s decision to build the existing building over a spring (click here to read Wawatay September 9 news story). Elders informed INAC officials of this potential problem before construction began over twenty years ago. Now the school has been closed since June 2004 as a result of a Health Canada order to remove everyone from this building. So as INAC officials want to continue to study the problem, Fort Severn children go without a school facility. The mould continues to grow and spread throughout the school because no one is able to go near the condemned facility. Click here to see September K-News story.

The local leadership and community members completed their own feasibility study during the summer at their own expense. The study recommended removing the school building and constructing a new facility. Bringing in temporary classrooms was planned for this year’s barge as financing and plans for the new school were completed. Then INAC decided that they would do their own study, thus preventing any of the community’s plans from proceeding. The INAC funded consultant determined that the old school should be renovated against the wishes of the local leadership and parents. As a compromise INAC is now demanding a third study by an independent body. Click here to read Wawatay story -Remediation won’t solve mould problem.

The community was then forced to use existing band owned buildings to accommodate some scheduled classroom activities that support a limited form of home schooling for the students as a temporary measure. These five buildings were build by the band to serve specific local needs. Now these functions are being put aside so the children can get a limited level of support they require to complete some of their work for this school year.

On November 24, a letter was sent to Fort Severn’s leaders from INAC (click here to read the letter) indicating a limited amount of funding would be made available to convert these five community owned buildings to classroom space with sufficient resources to address health and safety issues. The same letter states that INAC will continue with the third feasibility to remediate the existing school facility against the wisdom of the local community. The letter also states that INAC will not contribute towards the recommended non-safety items required for educational space nor restore the five community service buildings to their original purpose after they are no longer needed as classrooms.

Another letter arrived on December 2 from the Ontario Regional Director, Robert Howsam restating that INAC requires an independent assessment (click here to read this letter). Fort Severn sent their official response to these letters from INAC on December 7. Click here to read the Fort Severn response

Even though Fort Severn requires a new school as soon as possible due to the age and condition of the existing facility, INAC is insisting on yet another study that will require spending over a million dollars to "address the mould contamination and structural safety issues" of the existing facility. It is well understood that once renovations take place on an existing facility then the community priority position for a new facility is affected on INAC’s school construction program. Previous correspondence from INAC indicated that this would not happen but that has not been the case in the past.

Fort Severn needs a new school. The community and the families tried to work with INAC to have temporary classrooms in place for the start of the school year. The children and teaching staff are struggling to deliver an educational program that they hope will help them with their studies. But the situation is both depressing and dangerous for everyone. As INAC acknowledges in their letter, they need to spend over $400,000 just to address "safety / health issues" in these non-classroom environments that the community is using for interim classes.

The Auditor General notes in her latest report that INAC officials are not clear about what their role is when it comes to providing educational services in First Nations. In the case of Fort Severn it seems very clear. They will not listen to the community members and leaders. They will use policies and services that seem to create more delays that prevent the children from accessing a normal and safe school environment. Some people are feeling that the department's real agenda is to remove the people from their traditional homelands and lifestyles.